Kaleidoscopic Storytelling At Its Best

Jul 16, 2019
overlight header


Publisher: Renegade Game Studios
Format: Tabletop RPG
Price: $50
Copy Provided By Publisher, Additionally Purchased By Reviewer

Overlight, a new tabletop RPG system from Renegade Games, has been my obsession of late. That may actually be something of an understatement. I’ve spent hours with its core book reading its lore, lounging outside on a breezy summer day and poring through backgrounds and abilities; then after all that, sitting up at night listening to music while typing furiously at page after page of the initial story I have since started running. Overlight, a simple, accessible roleplaying system that is all about the narrative you weave with your players, has been something I may have been waiting for my whole life.

There is a lot at work in this single book, a metric ton of promise and potential. In many ways I think it delivers. As with any review of mine, I have some concerns on who will get the most out of this system, and I’ll get through those thoughts towards the end, but I will spoil up front that if in any way you are a lover of tabletop RPGs, especially if ones that focus on character over combat, or have simply wanted to try an RPG despite being put off by the crunchy rules and numbers of heavier entries in the genre, this is one world you should definitely not let pass you by.

overlight shards

Artwork throughout the book is stunning! In this depiction, you see the world of Overlight, shards of the world floating one above the other.

A World Of Pure Imagination

To understand the world of Overlight, you need to let go of your preconceptions of what you imagine a fantasy world to be. Let me set the scene for you. In this setting, the universe has been shattered and the planet hangs as seven continent-sized “shards,” each one over the other, above The Sea Beneath, a salt water mass filled with stars. There is no sun, and there is no moon. There is only the Overlight, a warming creationary force akin to divinity that radiates down from above, filling all it touches with hope and life. As the shards move back and forth in their relative position over one another, they create “day” and “night” on the shards beneath them, though in an erratic pattern. Shards near the top of the world may experience longer periods of light (in fact the top shard, a desert, is stuck in a state of perpetual day), while those near the bottom lay in nearly constant twilight or dark.

This world is a strange place to grasp at first, and the player races - along with their histories and lore - are equally as unique. There are some familiar humans, Haarkeen as they’re referred to, but there are also Teryxians, a scholarly if not also primal race of four foot tall lizard birds. Having one of your players as a Teryxian means you as the GM have to deal with a player who can fly at will, along with all the complications that brings to your thrilling chase scenes or cunning ambushes. Or maybe your group has a Zenith monk, a type of Haarkeen who trains body and mind in a snow-covered monastery, but is also accompanied by a larger-than-human, sentient monkey companion known as a Hamanu; the catch here is that the two characters are spirit bonded for life, inseparable friends, and if one of your players chooses one race, another must be willing to play the other alongside them. This is to say nothing of some of the truly novel non-human races like the Banyari, just as much cute, fuzzy animal as plant (the most common ones look something like a red panda inside a mech suit that’s basically a small tree). Believe me when I say there is something for everyone in this world.

Add to this the concept of Skyborn, members of these shard races who are born with special, glowing eyes (these are the Folk controlled by the players). They never quite fit in, always called to travel beyond their homes, and they can channel the Overlight in ways common Folk spend an entire lifetime learning. This theme of the Overlight shining down, channeling into different colors, each controlling its own type of power, modified by the Skyborn and radiating outwards again, permeates this multicolored, multicultural mural.

overlight tutoring

Learn under my tutelage, young one.

Myself, First Edition

Let me take a step back here, if you’ll excuse me, because this review has been a long time in the making; I’m talking, like, close to two decades in the making. Tabletop RPGs have been a huge part of my life for years, or rather they used to be up until adulthood called and the demands on my time changed. Throughout high school and college, I nearly exclusively played TTRPGs when not playing video games, and only when the multi-hour commitments became no longer feasible for a recently graduated non-student did I finally let them go. The personal history lesson here might seem like an indulgent tangent, and—well it is a bit, but I promise it’s also relevant to why Overlight’s claimed such a special place amongst games I’ve recently reviewed.

When the Sprites and Dice crew returned from PAX Unplugged last year, we returned with many shiny things, among them a chromatic, hard cover book with stunning artwork, the color on its pages spilling all the way to their edges so that even when closed the book was a rainbow from any angle. It was handed off to other members of the staff to pore through. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wistfully looked on as it exchanged hands. Secretly, I still felt its pull through practiced years of telling myself I would never have the time to commit to a TTRPG again, and I tried to content myself knowing it would go to someone that had the ability to give it a proper going over. Deep down though I was still sad that I likely wouldn’t even have a chance to experience it as a player. As with many in our hobby, I’d given up the hours long demand of RPG sessions for modern board games, easily fit into a couple hours at game night. Though, I’ve never truly stopped craving the absolute freedom and creativity you can achieve when playing a TTRPG.

And yet, life has a funny way of shifting around you like shards floating in the sky. Wyatt, after a decade of planning and prepping of his own, had come up with a drop-in, drop-out friendly game of Dungeons & Dragons that could be run in just a few hours per session. A game night friendly D&D campaign in his own homebrew setting! It got the cogs turning inside my own head. Why couldn’t the same thing be done with Overlight? It was still being examined and hadn’t yet been run or reviewed. I should mention this all happened right about the time I was walking through my local game store, gift card in hand, when I came across a sale on Overlight books. We could use more than one to pass around for reference, right?

The rest was history. It was time to unbury that part of me I’d been denying for so many years.

overlight hamanu 0

Spirit bonded for life, you might say.

Roll To Hit?

While I typically avoid describing one game in terms of another, I’m going to break my own rule and indulge in a bit of it here. A lot like I’ll nod when someone asks me about board games with that oft quoted, “You mean like Monopoly,” while it may not be the best 1-to-1 comparison it does serve to get someone thinking in terms of things they already know. Overlight really isn’t like D&D in much more than they are both TTRPGs that get the players into stories and adventures, but D&D is so ubiquitous at this point that it may be helpful to see one illuminated by the light of the other.

For starters, Overlight is very rules light. There are no stats for weapons or armor as in D&D. There is no “armor class” or rolls to hit. Combat, along with all other die rolls involving skills or powers, is handled by forming a pool of dice, rolling said dice, and reading the number of successes shown (in this case, anything 6 or higher); in the case of skill or power “tests” as they’re called, you need a certain number of successes, and in the case of combat each success is one damage done. If your skill is directly pitted against another character, then you instead only take the highest die result on each side and see who wins. As you get more powerful, you use bigger dice that naturally result in larger chances of success. There’s a bit more to it than that, but those are the basics.

Right out of the gate, what this means is that Overlight is immediately accessible. There are no crunchy systems whereby a player can mis-build their character and self-impose handicaps. In fact, everything in character creation is about bonuses (there are no starter penalties aside from a very few background specific adjustments, like being so good with animals to the point of being more awkward with normal Folk); an inexperienced player can’t accidentally give their frontline fighter negative modifiers on vital features (like health or damage) and crumble when they realize it during play.

overlight haarkeen

No more min/maxing. Just be the awesome person you want to be!

Overlight is also extremely forgiving in its use of powers, or Chroma as they’re called. Again, there are no wrong answers here, such as forgetting to take enough combat spells in D&D, because in another wonderful stroke, this game is very non-combat oriented! That doesn’t mean fights don’t happen, but rather they are fast, exciting, and dangerous (as they should be). They might even be completely avoidable! The result is that there really are no wrong Chroma to take. The effect that makes people your character meets view them favorably is just as useful as the effect that gives them damage reduction which is just as interesting as the effect that puts a person they kiss to sleep. Beginners can pick whatever seems interesting. They can pick whatever thematically fits their character the best. Optimization be darned! You can literally play any way you want. More on that multiple solutions to puzzles thought in a moment.

This freedom from the mindset of “I have to survive combat” is truly liberating. I’ve talked with Eric in no small degree about Overlight versus D&D, and while they’re both very good systems which we both enjoy, we’re both in agreement that Overlight focuses much more on the characters, intrigue, and collaborative storytelling whereas D&D spends a lot of its session time as a tactical simulator. You don’t need minis or maps to play Overlight. You don’t need to spend valuable play time counting movement squares and debating one spell versus leaving a flank open. You can react viscerally with your character as long as an action is deemed reasonable by your GM, the game master running the session. Again, that’s not a dig against D&D, a system I still very much love. But consider where most of the page space goes in each book: D&D spends it on stats and combat rules while Overlight spends it on lore and Chroma (the vast majority of which, again, are non-combat oriented and have lore of their own).

overlight novapendra

The mysterious Novapendra. Flesh eating monsters or enlightenment seeking meditative types? Do you want to find out?

In terms of that fondly loved aspect of all RPGs, character creation, things are equally as smooth. A point system allows players to buy up their Virtues (their main stats), skills, and Chroma. Again, things are kept simple, as those three aspects, along with any boosts and bonuses you gain from your chosen background (sort of equivalent to classes in D&D), are really all you have to trouble yourself with. The longest part of character creation is when new players look through the Chroma available to them in order to choose what they want. Given that necessary browsing, creating your first character could take upwards of 20 minutes, but at the guidance of a GM who knows the books and asks more about a character someone has in mind (or if the player knows the system already), targeted suggestions could drop creation time to a mere 5-10 minutes!

A Story You Tell Together

Overlight, at its heart, is all about collaboration between the GM and their players, which granted should be the focus of all RPGs but sadly isn’t always so. I’m going to go back in time to my college days again to draw yet another comparison here. A friend of mine, very experienced in running his own games, once said, “Nothing ruins a good plot like players.” At the time, and for years afterwards, I’d always think of this sentiment the same: comical, wry, and so very true. You spend hours coming up with a villain, plot hooks, all the little bits to string them together, and as soon as players get involved things go off the rails! They miss obvious hooks, they go down paths you haven’t planned. Sometimes what was planned as a single session takes three because of all the tangents people go off on. In short, they mess up that perfectly planned plot.

But Overlight is a little different. Good luck sitting there, planning your first session, trying to figure out why anyone would take a Chroma that allows them to literally plant a tree (albeit a very special one). Do you really go out of your way to plan how that might be used in case someone takes it? Of course you don’t! You write the skeleton of your story and you leave wiggle room for “players do stuff.” In so doing, I realized quickly that Overlight did something very magical. You see, in taking the focus off mechanics, off combat, and off making that perfectly optimized build, it opens the door to all kinds of crazy interactions and story possibilities. Do you try to evade the city guards of Haark by dodging through a busy market? That’s probably an Athletics test. But maybe you used to be a member of the guard, and you know how they fan out for a search. A cunning player might convince the GM to allow an Intuition test instead, something to which they’re more experienced. Players will do unexpected things, but Overlight not only allows them, it practically encourages them while giving you the tools to sort things out.

overlight banyari

Banyari come in all kinds of varieties. This is a Verthod Rootlord.

This system creates opportunities like this constantly. In one of my last sessions, a Banyari player decided to toss one of the root shrews living in her plant body at the back of a fleeing enemy’s head to distract him (yes, she has literal shrews living with her, and no shrews were harmed in the playing of our session). You think I was prepared for that? Heck no, but it was inventive, fun, and I totally allowed it. Why does the rule book give that Banyari background root shrews as a “possession” anyway? In another story moment, what I’d intended to be a light prologue introducing one of my other players to the world grew into an experience with an estranged brother, reconciliation, character growth, and a furthering of his own backstory, all in thirty minutes! All because I’d simply asked a few questions about how he felt at key moments and allowed his backstory outline to influence my narrative. I bent to his creativity and then just let things take their course.

Overlight, in no uncertain terms, spells out that finer lore details are left intentionally vague in its book. You don’t have a bestiary giving you every wild creature on every shard (you do get a few notable ones though), and the game instructs and encourages you to invent your own. The list of available skills isn’t actually all that long, but it covers all the basics and players are encouraged to use them in inventive ways. And despite all the lore that the core book provides, there are many mysteries left in the air, many one liner hooks left hanging, which the GM can use any way they see fit. This is all by design; the game constantly asks a GM to imagine. What if? Why? What made this thing this way? In so doing, you enhance the existing lore and make it your own. And it asks players constantly how do you choose to do that thing, in so doing forcing them to flesh out their roleplaying. You and your players bring the world alive by the collective narrative you tell. As I said before, while the goal of any RPG should be collaborative storytelling, purely from a design perspective Overlight encourages it in a way more traditional systems don’t. The experience is all the richer for it.

My friend once said, “Nothing ruins a good plot like players,” and now after nearly two decades, I think I’m going to amend that statement to, “Nothing enhances a good plot like players.”

overlight romos

Romos Banyari are masters at fishing and something of wanderers.

A Modern System For A Modern Age

Prior to Overlight, I hadn’t actually run a TTPRG since I left for college in 2001, at which point I became almost exclusively a player. But in those years both where I ran games and was a player myself, my experience was virtually always framed the same way: there was a plot with an overarching villain or event that needed tending to, and game sessions were always run in terms of “go get in a fight, get loot and level up.” I get it. Combat was thrilling and a good way to use all your new abilities and powers, most of them designed to supplement your ability to kill stuff better and be a bigger badass. But adult me has some issues with this approach.

If we come back to D&D for a moment again, partly for that aforementioned ubiquity as well as being considered the granddaddy of modern tabletop RPGs, and considering it’s gone through a whopping five editions in its roughly four and a half decade life, we can see that there are some glaring, inherent problems that have been baked into the core rules and handed down through the generations. Why are Half-Orcs penalized racially as not being as smart as other races? And I’m not talking from a mechanics perspective (i.e. balance the stat boost with another stat penalty); I mean in a literal roleplay and thematic sense. Why aren’t Orcs a playable race themselves (they are considered a monster)? Why are Orc and Half-Orc culture centered around barbaric tendencies that involve violence in an evil light? You may seriously want to read that article link if you’re unfamiliar with the issues at hand. They’re not pretty.

overlight pyroi 2

The Pyroi, martial masters who keenly understand Might Chroma like no others.

And this is to say nothing that, as mentioned before, D&D is a tactical game at heart. This is very much a system where you beat stuff up and take its loot. Baddies are experience fodder for levelling up. Why is killing stuff half of levelling up anyway? And if you’re going to go out on a limb and say that the person running the game can house rule the stat penalties away (the linked article makes some great suggestions on how to do this), that they can change Orc culture to have its own nuance, emotion, and humanity. If you’re arguing that players can fix D&D themselves, I would only partially agree with you. Sure if it’s a system you love, you absolutely 100% should turn it into something you can all get behind, but I’d also counter by asking why those options aren’t a part of the rules to begin with. Why is it a player’s job to fix issues baked into a ruleset?

D&D’s not the only culprit here, but it’s certainly had its share of influence on the creation of other TTRPGs over the decades. Which is why Overlight struck me in—well, a new light. There are a variety of humanlike and non-human races that allow players to mold their experience as they see fit. Every race has a culture that validates them as a living entity in this world, deserving of their own place and history. The obvious parallel to D&D’s Half-Orcs would be Overlight’s Pyroi, the roving warband race. Except in this system the game makes a point of saying they have rich history and traditions that grew out of necessity on their snow-laden, volcanic shard; they may seem stiff and bellicose to outsiders, but they have insights into violence (such as when hunting for food) that most other races don’t understand. They’re introspective and considered, rather than bloodthirsty. I liken them more to Star Trek’s honor and custom-bound Klingons than I do D&D’s murderous Orcs.

Taking a moment to re-acknowledge the mission of Sprites and Dice, spreading positivity in our game playing communities, everyone should be welcome at an inclusive gaming table. And if everyone is welcome, everyone deserves to have the chance to relate to a character they build. I think it’s about darn time we’re seeing a system like Overlight, robust in its lore and culture as to offer any player something of value, no matter where they’re coming from.

overlight monk and hamanu

Helping each other to a richer experience every step of the way.

All Good Things Come To A Shatter

I would be remiss to end this article and cut to my summary, as well as my considerations for purchasing, without mentioning one last major piece of this scintillating system. It’s arguably the most thrilling aspect of the Chroma powers: shattering. I’ll paint the scene for you once more. Your Haarkeen (that is, human) thief makes use of a Chroma that allows them to unlock things at will. They’ve gotten into, and out of, all sorts of trouble with this ability. Every time they channel this power, they burn points from their spirit pool, a bit like a mana bar in a video game. One day, their back against a wall, they find themselves trapped! They could use their power for an escape, but they risk not having enough spirit left to channel it properly. You weigh your options and decide to go for it, but while the power succeeds, your character “over channels” the Chroma, searing their mind as they allow too much Overlight to cascade through them. After their getaway, they discover that a keyhole has appeared on their body, and should anyone peer into it, they see their own eye peering back.

When you channel a Chroma in this game, and you can’t fully pay its cost, you experience what’s called a shatter. These mandatory effects, which stack cumulatively up to three times, each becoming more severe, change your character permanently. But they do so in very strange ways. Some early shatters even give you seemingly useful changes! While some will impose obvious penalties on your die rolls, others might simply force the Folk of the shards to regard you differently (say if you now have little yellow lights bobbing around your head constantly). In the case of our keyhole, a level three shatter allows it to fully come into being, and implies there may now be a key somewhere in the world you might one day find; who knows what lies on the other side of that keyhole should you actually open it!

overlight body mod

This isn't even Chroma. This is just Aurumel body modification.

Characters and the story they tell with the GM are at the heart of a good story, and so naturally character progression is one way that story grows and flowers. It most often comes about as a result of character interactions, and many times it’s attitudes and viewpoints that change, but rarely does it take such a manifested, physical form as with Chroma shatters. Again, this system by design incorporates new and interesting ways to give your creations more character (pun intended). Every player I’ve shown shatters to, despite them being objectively negative effects on the whole, has murmured in awe and excitement at their possibilities. You know you’ve made something special when players look at “penalties” as assets and things that make the game more fun.

overlight aurumel

Fun lore fact: All Aurumel of social standing wear masks. Some are handed down for generations, exquisitely crafted and signifying status.

Back Through The Prism

So let’s do a quick recap here. The systems presented are streamlined and easy to learn. With open and flexible skill/Chroma mechanics, players and GMs are encouraged to collaborate and play off the ideas of one another by design. The system has modern sensibilities about treating each race and background respectfully, and in so doing gives players the freedom to play any way they wish. And the game is full of interesting design choices like Chroma shatters, furthering character progression and storytelling in compelling and engaging ways.

In terms of who this game is for, I thought about breaking up my recommendations into categories of new player, experienced player, first time GM, and veteran GM, but you know what? Forget all of that. This system is for everyone. I’m just going to come right out and say it. There isn’t a single gamer on either side of the aisle here that couldn’t have absolutely the best time with Overlight. There is so much in just this core book that, even vague as plot hooks are left for individual storytelling, the fun of learning about each shard, its history and lore, maybe some of its hidden secrets, and all the adventures you could have in just the smallest corner of this world will give even a newbie to RPGs a cornucopia of fun options to play around with. Veterans alike will find so much depth to explore from “low level” to “high level” that you could realistically run a weekly game session for years and still never run out of adventures.

And frankly, considering you could buy just the core book to run a complete campaign and not feel wanting for supplemental books, the value on offer here is a steal!

overlight pyroi bat 0

Another fun lore fact: Travel between shards without an airship is difficult, but some Folk manage it.

I do have some cautions as to getting the most out of this system, though I’d expect you’d want to do this with any setting. Especially because it’s so mechanically rules-light, this game lives and dies on its lore, as well as your ability to create engaging (and possibly recurring) NPCs (the game master controlled characters). A living RPG world is at its best when players feel like it’s in motion outside of their immediate view, a world going through its everyday life. Your players will need to get a sense of their home shards, the customs and basic history of their Folk, to feel truly a part of this setting. This is extra critical with Overlight because the setting is so different from the standard dwarves and elves most people know. So if you plan to dive in, make sure you at least fully read the introductory lore section at the front of the book; you’d also do well to leaf through the Chroma lore for its insights. I don’t necessarily think you need an experienced GM to shepherd new players into the world. Feel free to experience it together as friends all new to the TTRPG genre! Just, do a little homework first, if you will.

As for my reservations, rules lawyers are going to need to take a backseat with this system. If you’re the type who craves structure within structure, you might feel a bit uncomfortable with the fluid skill system of Overlight. If you still plan to try it, relax and have some faith in your GM (or if you’re the GM, have some faith in your players)! And power gamers looking to wring every last drop of optimization out of their builds are going to need to leave that side of themselves at the door. These systems aren’t crunchy like other TTRPGs, so you’re not going to get that satisfaction when your perfect stats and carefully chosen weapons and feats result in you slaying an army singlehandedly. While I hope, even if this describes you a little bit, you can look past these things and enjoy the game on offer, if ultimately these are breaking points for you, you might be better served by another game.

overlight extras

There are some extras and accessories, but those are for another review.

Now that I’ve discovered it, I’m left with the longing that I wish this system had existed back when I was in college. If I have one personal complaint of the Overlight system, it’s that I want there to be more lore material! Not that you need it to play, but I want there to be more books expounding on factions and history. I want a GM’s-eyes-only book of deep dark secret ideas for plot hooks! I want to spend my weekends reading source materials like they were novels. And this is coming from someone that cringed and shied away from buying many of the D&D supplements for all their tedium and having to keep them all straight. I want to be barely treading water in the ocean of this world’s lore. And I wish that I could’ve been playing it for years already.

But thankfully, at least we have it now. This system gets to the all good stuff of an RPG, the characters and storytelling, with no hesitation. If you are looking for a tabletop RPG, I hope that you’ll put Overlight on your priority list of systems to check out. I hope you enjoy what you find. And I hope you enjoy the journey ahead.

Adam Factor